Nader, Ralph (1934—)

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Nader, Ralph (1934—)

Activist Ralph Nader became twentieth-century America's prime crusader in matters of serious public concern. Since the mid-1960s his name has been synonymous with consumer protection and, although the consumer rights movement did not originate with him, he publicly expanded, publicized, and legitimized it. Nader elected a broad focus for his cause with the basic goal of protecting the individual citizen from corporate might, concentrating not merely on one issue of public concern, but seeking out the effects of profit-motivated industry on the public in many different arenas, from water pollution and airline safety to insurance, free trade, and law.

Born the son of Lebanese immigrants and raised in Winstead, Connecticut, Nader graduated from Princeton University in 1955 and got his law degree from Harvard in 1958. While in law school, his studies of auto injury cases sparked his interest in unsafe automobile designs. He practiced law in Connecticut until 1963, when he moved to Washington, D.C., and got a job as a consultant with the U.S. Department of Labor. In 1965, he published his landmark work, Unsafe at Any Speed, a critique of the American automobile industry. Using the General Motors Corvair as his prime example, Nader cited low safety standards, and the failure of car manufacturers to devote a sufficient amount of their profits to safety research, as the cause of many accidents.

His research, and the publication of its results, led directly to the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which gave the government the power to set safety standards for all vehicles sold in the United States. Nader then turned his attention to other consumer issues. Working with a team of committed lawyers who were soon known as "Nader's Raiders," he published dozens of studies calling for government regulation of a wide-ranging list of disturbing consumer issues. These included baby food, insecticide, mercury poisoning, banking, and many more. In 1969, Nader founded the Center for Responsive Law for the continuing investigation of many aspects of modern life, including the health hazards of mining and nursing home abuse. Nader's Raiders put their investigative noses into every corner of the industrial and corporate world, highlighting injustices, illegalities, and dangers, and incurring the enmity of many captains of industry and commerce.

In the mid-1970s, Nader sponsored the "Critical Mass" conferences about the dangers of nuclear power, which produced the ongoing Critical Mass Energy Project. In 1988, he helped to secure the passage of a California initiative to reduce the cost of automobile insurance, and in the 1990s he began taking on the computer industry, fighting the monopolistic practices of many of the big corporations. The work of Nader and his colleagues is responsible for the creation of many concerned consumer groups, including Congress Watch, Public Citizen, Commercial Alert, the Center for Auto Safety, the National Insurance Consumer Organization, and the Health Research Organization.

Though he said, "The most important office in America for anyone to achieve is full-time citizen," in 1996 Ralph Nader ran for the presidency of the United States. He didn't expect to win, but to call attention to the lack of real debate between the major party candidates, whom he called, "a Corporate Party with two heads wearing different makeup." Running on a platform that expounded on the need to fight corporate crime and oppose multinational corporations "whose only allegiance is to profit," Nader was not permitted to participate in the nationally televised candidate debates. Despite Democratic fears that Nader's candidacy would draw votes away from Bill Clinton, the Democratic incumbent won handily. A number of traditional Democrat supporters did vote for Nader, however, if only to express their dissatisfaction with the party's lack of response to the concerns of working people.

Nader's landmark work for the rights of consumers has made his name a household word throughout the United States and abroad. Even those who disagree with his politics acknowledge him as a sharp watchdog on industry. His methodology—employing fact-finding investigations, published reports, and lawsuits followed by lobby-ing—has become a model for action in the public interest movement. A deeply committed activist, he has eschewed a celebrity lifestyle in favor of legendary thriftiness, living in a tiny apartment in the town where he grew up and refusing to own a car. Describing his work, Ralph Nader has said he wishes to promote "citizen action against the growth of the corporate state and its political and economic disenfranchisement of the public."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Celsi, Teresa Noel. Ralph Nader: The Consumer Revolution. Brook-field, Connecticut, Millbrook Press, 1991.

Crusz, Rienzi W. G. Ralph Nader: A Bibliography—1960-1982. Waterloo, Ontario, University of Waterloo Library, 1982.

Holsworth, Robert D. Public Interest Liberalism and the Crisis of Affluence: Reflections on Nader, Environmentalism, and the Politics of Sustainable Society. Boston, G.K. Hall, 1980.

Isaac, Katherine. Ralph Nader, Practising Democracy 1997: A Guide to Student Action. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.